Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Aftermath

Well. Did I did learn a couple of things. One: I'm not like Ian McEwan. Two: I don't want to write like Ian McEwan. Three: I wish I had McEwan's sales figures.

The other thing that struck me was something McEwan said when he talked about his early writing., which was along the lines of during his first four books he was under the misapprehension that you should not show a character's interior thoughts. And that clearly he changed his mind. Martin Amis said something along the same lines last week, talking about theme in his own writing - that when one has written a few books then you can go back and have a look at the preoccupations that unite them all. I find this very reassuring because I still feel I'm learning about writing, and clearly both of them learnt from their early books that then helped them go on and write more.

As far as the rest of the lunch: very pleasant, and McEwan was a good deal more humourous than his work might make you think. I even went so far as to buy his latest book, Chesil Beach, but found it hard to get through the first sentence without being repelled. No other writer has this affect on me - of turning me off immediately - and I tried to work out why and pushed on further into the book, and it's the narratorial voice I dislike, which is irritatingly all-knowing.

Still, Passing Under Heaven and Ciao Asmara both went into their second impression this week, which is great news, and I'm struggling against the deadline for a couple of short stories, which seems a much more difficult style of writing than writing books. Got a very exciting March coming up, with a tour of China's lit fests, from Hong Kong to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Suzhou. Strangely, it's the thought of the various foods I'll be eating along the way that is exciting me most. But food, intelligent conversation, and fine wine are about as good a combination as you can find. Which strangely brings me back to the lunch. More please!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Literary Lunches

I'm having lunch with Ian McEwan tomorrow. Well, not just me. There's about forty of us who have paid a nice sum for the honour of eating and drinking some fine fare, and then listening to Mr McEwan talk about his work for half an hour.

And all this feels very relevant as next month I will be taking a month off touring the various Chinese literary festivals, and I'm wondering what exactly lit fests and lunches are all about. What do we hope to achieve or learn by listening to an author talking about their work. And - as an author - what do I gain by meeting an audience?

I suppose that the author's motivation is clear. Beyond the pure ego-boost, and the chance to sell books, I'm very clear about the purpose of these events for me. It stems from the fact that writing is a peculiarly divorced art form, with artist and audience seperated by time and place and in case of translation - even language. Readings are the only time an author meets their audience and when I read I get to feel their reaction, in the same way that an actor can feel the audience from the stage.

As a spectator I'ma little more confused by lit fests. And I suppose there's a rainbow of reasons why people attend. I go to learn something from the authors, or to be inspired. But the problem is that authors are so random at delivering a performance anything like thier books. Very entertaining raconteurs I remember seeing include Louis de Bernieres and Simon Winchester, but - my first - AS Byatt was less interesting than a pot of paint.

I'm not sure what I'm expecting from tomorrow's lunch. I'm not a big fan of McEwan's writing, but he has certainly hit a groove in the popular British literary scene - and I am sure I can learn tomorrow - and now all that's left is to hope that McEwan is one of those writers who can hold the attention of an audience in the flesh, as well as on the page.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Phew! That's over then....

It's February, isn't it? I'm not entirely sure where the last three months went, but they've certainly gone. I blame all this on the fact that Christmastide coincided with an avanlanche of family visits. These started in November and ended mid-January, and all this means that life is only just starting to settle into its equilibrium. And life, of course, means the novel.

I actually got a fair amount of work done when they were here, but only in short bursts, and as soon as they left I got to get straight back to work, working full days and nights, and have been buried under drafts ever since.

People often ask me how to write novels, but I have no idea how to write, although I know alot more than I used to. I can tell you however, how I wrote each of my own novels: and they're all as different as children. Having written two novels I thought I knew something about how this one would go, but it's coming out in quite a different way from all the others - just proving the point that there are a hundred ways to reach the same destination.

But there are a few things that unify my novels:
  • My first chapters inspire me throughout the rest of the book
  • I have a strong sense of what I want the book to be: and when I'm far far out to sea, this is the light by which I navigate
  • Confidence: there is nothing as valuable as having confidence in what you're writing, and it's a hard thing to get when it's not there. This is especially hard when you're writing about a time and place you're not familiar with, which is what I'm doing. But a couple of years into researching and writing this novel, I feel I'm starting to get my confidence about my work and it feels great to come at my draft and decide what stays in and what goes
When I started work again this year I had about 80,000 words, and had only got about 2/3 through the book. This was clearly too long, and I'm currently going through the novel something like a dot the dot exercise, leaping to the critical scenes and cutting out the bits between. This is making a much tighter and more confident reading. So far it looks as though I will cut about 20,000 words from that when I finish the draft.

One of the reasons that this novel is quite different to the others is that I know what the second half of the book will be like, and paused 2/3 of the way through to assess if I had enough characters to get me through this second half. The first time I got there I was well short. About 7 drafts have followed, and as soon as that 2/3s was working as a group and got me to the point I wanted to be at, then I've started cutting it to retain the best writing.

Novels have long planning times, and most of March I am going to be attending lit fests across China, so March will be a bit of a miss. My aim is to get this draft finished and then start drawing up detailed plans for the last part of the book. I'm always impressed with the way Desperate Housewives delivers their stories: they're bold and confident - and I rarely plot my novels much, but this time I'm going to try and plot the last chapter out much more closely. It'll be interesting to see how it works, but I'd like to try and treat each chapter like a poem: so that it's intense and concentrate.

Well, I'll let you know how it goes.